Mueller testimony shows urgent need for news literacy
Millions of Americans will be paying close attention on Wednesday when former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testifies before two congressional committees about his investigation into Russia’s election interference in 2016 and possible obstruction of justice by President Donald J. Trump. While Democrats and Republicans will no doubt disagree over Mueller’s testimony, it highlights the importance of developing a bipartisan approach to the threat that such disinformation poses to our democracy.
Mueller’s 22-month probe, which culminated in a 448-page report released in April, included meticulous documentation of how Russia’s Internet Research Agency fabricated news reports, created hashtags for fake groups, used the fake groups to promote simultaneous rallies pitting opposing sides against each other, and posted inflammatory language on social media that spread like digital wildfires. On Facebook alone, content posted by the Internet Research Agency reached more than 126 million Americans — about half the voting-age population — between January 2015 and August 2017.
But Americans would have been less vulnerable to these attacks if we had been taught how to recognize the deceptive tactics that were being employed against us. An electorate trained in news literacy would have had the critical-thinking skills to see through this disinformation.
As we approach the 2020 presidential election, this issue could not be more urgent. Last year, using data provided by Twitter, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported that a false news story was 70% more likely to be retweeted than one that was true. They also discovered that while true stories rarely reached more than 1,000 people, the top 1% of false stories were routinely spread by between 1,000 and 100,000.
Even digital natives, like today’s students, are vulnerable: A 2016 study by the Stanford History Education Group found that 80% of middle school students believed that “sponsored content” ads were real news reports, while fewer than 20% of high school students questioned the credibility of a misleading photo. If we don’t take steps to rectify this situation now, we’re potentially dooming our digitally focused future generations to a lifetime of struggling to separate fact from fiction.
To give young people the tools they need to be informed participants in the life of their communities, it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel. Think of it as an updated version of civics education, one that helps students inoculate themselves from the pandemic of misinformation — whether from trolls, profiteers or adversarial governments — that infects our public discourse.
Lawmakers in a number of states have responded to this moment by introducing or enacting legislation that would support the adoption of media literacy education in public schools. Civics courses, which often include a media literacy component, are returning as a high school graduation requirement; in Illinois, which has such a requirement, a bill that would also mandate civics education in middle schools awaits the governor’s signature.
The News Literacy Project, which I founded 11 years ago and continue to lead, has developed curriculum, resources and programs that give educators the tools to teach middle school and high school students how to determine what is real and verified versus what is false and manipulated. We’ve seen how building news literacy skills helps students become critical thinkers. They learn to approach information with equanimity, not emotion; to value credibility, not clickability. They emerge more confident in their ability to discern and create truthful information and more likely to correct errors when they find them. This deliberative mindset will serve them well through a lifetime of informed decision-making and civic engagement. They are now part of the information solution, not part of the misinformation problem.
I’ll leave it to the politicians to determine their response to Mueller’s testimony. But I hope we all can unite around the idea of empowering teachers to educate young people to become savvy enough to spot any misinformation or disinformation that comes their way. A news-literate public will be cognizant of the challenging information landscape and know how to confidently blaze a trail through the confusion and distortion for others to follow.